UPDATED: Bushfires in New South Wales – experts respond


Dozens of bushfires continue to rage in New South Wales, Australia. 

Our friends at the Australian Science Media Centre have gathered expert comments below. We will update this page with new comments as they come in.

On the decision to declare a State of Emergency in NSW, allowing people to be forced to leave their homes because of bushfire threat:

Dr Jim McLennan, Bushfire CRC Research Leader, School of Psychological Science at La Trobe University, comments:

“Based on the information in the public domain about predicted fire danger conditions in several locations in NSW over the next several days, this seems to be  the only rational course of action available to NSW police and emergency services agencies at the time of the decision. However, they are on a ‘hiding to nothing’.

Decision science makes clear that, in a high stakes situation with no chance of fixing it in the event authorities underreact and people died, the only defensible choice is what decision scientists call ‘minimaxing’ –  choosing the course of action LEAST likely to lead to the WORST possible outcome.

This is what NSW authorities have done by declaring a State of Emergency. We hope that the declaration proves unnecessary. But if events unfold such that there are no more deaths and minimal further house losses, commentators need to be aware of the phenomenon of ‘hindsight bias’, that is when you now know that things were not as bad as you think you were lead to believe, then you conclude you knew it all along and you excoriate agencies for over-reacting.

Journalists should take this into account in their reporting over the next several days in relation to how this situation turns out.”

On evacuations:

Jamie Ranse, is a University of Canberra health academic who specialises in disasters. His research focuses on nurses’ willingness, preparedness, role and experience of disasters. He comments:

“In the wake of a major incident, emergency services are stretched and medicines are in short supply, so residents should be ready to look after themselves. When preparing for potential evacuation, people often think about sentimental items they would like to take with them, such as photo albums and computers, but they often forget to think about items that will support their health needs. There are a few simple steps people can take to be health prepared, including preparing a list of previous medical and surgical history, as well as a list and a supply of current medication.”

On including children in bushfire planning:

Dr Briony Towers is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in RMIT University’s Centre for Risk and Community Safety. Dr Towers has examined the role of children in the planning process for family bushfire survival plans, interviewing 140 children aged 5-12 living in high bushfire-risk areas as part of research conducted with the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre (CRC). She comments:

“Parents should talk to their children about fire safety and involve them in their bushfire survival plans – in a serious event, that knowledge could be crucial.

“When children are given the chance to discuss bushfire mitigation and planning with more knowledgeable peers or adults, they are more than capable of understanding the fundamental principles of safety and survival. While parents may be concerned that talking about fires may cause unnecessary anxiety, our research shows that when children have a clear understanding of the steps that could be taken to prevent or reduce bushfire impacts, they are less fearful and anxious about living in a high bushfire-risk area.

“Arming children with knowledge that is appropriate to their age level not only helps reduce their worries but could prove vital for their survival in a bushfire crisis.”

On the impacts of bushfires on Australian wildlife and pets:

Dr Robert Johnson,spokesperson for the Australian Veterinary Association, comments:

“Planning is key and can not only help save human lives but also save pets’ lives. With any bushfire you need to decide if you’re going to evacuate or stay at home. If you decide to stay at home think about confining pets to the safest enclosed room of the house such as the bathroom where they can be quickly collected if you need to leave.

“Put together an emergency kit with lots of non-perishable food and water in spill-proof containers. Make sure you have carry cages and leads on hand in case you decide to evacuate. It’s also important to be prepared for possible disruption of services, including power, water and phone networks for extended periods of time.

“If you become separated from your pet in an emergency evacuation advise local vets, animal welfare shelters and rescue organisations. It’s crucial that your pet is microchipped and registered with the local council to make it easier to be re-united in an emergency.

“Some species such as birds may be able to escape more easily than others but will be affected once they try to return to their preferred habitat. This can occur for months after a bushfire. While it’s very tragic when wildlife is destroyed or injured in a bushfire it’s important not to put your own life at risk when recuing an animal.

“Extra care should be taken with venomous or aggressive animals. If you find injured or orphaned wildlife call your nearest wildlife rescue organisation or local vet.”

AVA brochures on protecting horses, livestock and pets in natural disasters are available for download from the AVA website at http://www.ava.com.au/public/animals-and-natural-disasters

On the psychological stress of fires:

Dr Michelle Tuckey, Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy at the University of South Australia:

“The physical health of fire-fighters is paramount, and explicitly protected with a variety of high-tech personal protective equipment. The mental and emotional health of volunteers is just as important, however, especially for those fire-fighters whose own communities are threatened by these fires. The ongoing nature of an extreme fire event adds fatigue and exhaustion to the mix, creating an additional health and safety challenge.

“Peer support has a long tradition in volunteer fire-fighting. First and foremost, as some of my own research shows, the camaraderie amongst ‘firies’ (a type of bond that is unique to these sorts roles and occupations) is a big protective factor. Volunteers describe the brigade as their family and draw a huge amount of support from fellow members, whom they trust with their life on the fire ground. Trained peer supporters offer more formal support; these are operational fire-fighters who are trained and qualified to provide psychological first aid for their fellows. Peer supporters work in tandem with mental health professionals to safeguard the psychological well-being of volunteers in emergency situations.

“My research on organisational culture shows that it is vital for organisations to show workers that the organisation and senior management care about their psychological health, as well as their physical safety. When firies know that the organisation has ‘got their backs’, this knowledge works like a safety signal to employees, helping them to stay connected and involved in their work and experience lower levels of stress. It also reaffirms to volunteer fire-fighters how important they are in the Australian community.”

On arson:

Dr Paul Read,  Monash Sustainability Institute at Monash University, comments:

“Last year, there was some talk by the NSW Premier of making arsonists help with clean-up.  I still don’t think this is a good idea if the suggestion is made again this year.  For a few reasons: 1. it takes a long time to catch and convict the arsonist, 2. it is unlikely that those arsonists who truly set out to cause as much damage a possible will be moved or have their attitudes changed by working alongside victims and 3. victims themselves need to be left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives without having to confront the perpetrator.  As for those arsonists where negligence is concerned, it would no doubt have the desired effect but these are not the target group of such an initiative anyway as they would already be devastated by the consequences of their actions. By the same token, where children, adolescents and even young adults are perpetrators, even in the presence of malicious intent, the outcome would most likely run counter to the intentions.  It is not a good idea to have arsonists help with the clean-up.”

On property prices:

Prof Chris Eves is a professor in property economics with QUT’s Science and Engineering Faculty (Civil Engineering and The Built Environment). Chris has carried out a number of research studies on the impact of natural disasters on residential property markets and buyer behaviour following such events. These studies have also considered the previous severe bushfires in Sydney in from 1993 to 2002 and how these fires impacted on the affected residential property markets. Prof Eves comments:

“The price of non-affected houses in areas where the bushfires have been severe will be immediate, with a reduction in the number of houses listed for sale. Over the next six months houses in these areas will see a reduction in value even if they were not directly impacted by the bushfires. If there are any fatalities in the affected areas, the decline in values will be greater. Unlike natural disasters such as floods, where the clean-up and removal of evidence of the natural disaster is relatively quick, the clean-up from a severe bushfire takes considerably longer and the evidence is visible for years, reminding potential buyers of the risk. This not only reduces price, but also the time to sell and limits potential buyers. There will also be an exodus of a significant number of house renters who will seek alternative accommodation.”

Earlier commentary from the AusSMC:

Justin Leonard is CSIRO’s research leader for Bushfire urban design

“House loss is highly likely under these conditions, life loss is also likely. History has shown us that on average one life is lost for every 17 houses. The majority of these lives are lost within a few hundred metres of homes.

“When fires are near, use the home as a refuge rather than fleeing at the last minute. Monitor the home’s condition while you shelter in case you need to exit the house on to burnt ground.”

On the health effects of bushfire smoke inhalation, Dr Martine Dennekamp from the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine at Monash University, comments:

“Australia is at increasing risk from bushfires.  The smoke can cover large areas including major cities and therefore has the potential to affect millions of people. The air pollutant that seems most important in relation to population health effects of bushfire smoke is particulate matter, and in particular the very small particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs.

As with urban air pollution, those with pre-existing heart or lung disease, young children and the elderly are more likely to be affected by the smoke. During bushfire smoke episodes, particulate matter concentrations are usually much higher than urban background concentrations, at which effects on respiratory health have been observed.

Our recent 2011 review found that there is an association between Emergency Department presentations for respiratory conditions like asthma and COPD and bushfire smoke events. In addition, preliminary results investigating the occurrence of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests during the 2006/2007 bushfire season in Victoria show an increase in arrests in Melbourne during this time.”

On communicating information across the media, Dr David Holmes, School of Communications and Media Studies at Monash University, comments:

“With the growing scale of the NSW fires, mass media and social media  have swung into emergency response forms of communication. The emphasis on breaking news and emergency updates is being best handled by ABC radio, but more importantly media sharing on twitter. The NSW Rural Fire Service @NSWRFS and @nswfiremedia are both important source-points of information as are the many mainstream media news outlet bulletins being retweeted on Twitter. Most of the bulletins are focussing on practical safety information, with some of the personalized ‘stories’ focussing on adversity and catastrophe.

“It remains to be seen what treatment these fires will be given in mainstream editorials, with the extraordinary editorial opinion piece in last Monday’s Sydney Daily Telegraph leading with the words: ‘There is almost no doubt that climate change is occurring and very little that human activity is a contributor’. Such a stance on climate change is a complete reversal of its past editorial position, and was put out on a day when fire was raging all over its front page.”

Professor David Bowman is Professor of Environmental Change Biology at The University of Tasmania

New South Wales fires

“To my mind a significant feature of the NSW fires is the short time [involved] —  a hint of trouble spiraled into serious trouble, all within 24 hours.

“A key factor is high wind speeds and hot conditions – again difficult to predict accurately – that drive fires and quickly dry fuels out.”

Early fire season

“I am of course worried about the significance of the early start of the NSW fire season for southern Australia.

“It must be understood more widely that predicting fires’ start, duration and intensity of fire seasons is beyond our current scientific capacities.”


“I see the burst of fires in NSW (on the back of some extremely severe fires last year) as a very worrying sign for Tasmania, a community still recovering from the extreme January 4 fires.”

Community response

“The Australian community must understand better the very rapid evolution of bushfire disasters and plan accordingly.”